A jewel worth saving
The story of the Aero’s rebirth begins at the Brentwood Country Mart, the Westside’s answer to the Fairfax District’s Farmers Market. It was a place where Cary Grant, Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn could lunch without the hoi polloi accosting them, and where a teenage Rosenfield could escape his unglamorous Sherman Oaks existence.
When Rosenfield entered real estate, purchasing the treasured hangout of his youth “was my single goal. I’m kind of a sentimental developer,” he said.
After acquiring the Brentwood Country Mart, Rosenfield was walking from his Euclid Street home to his Montana Avenue offices when he noticed a second-run theater in decline. The Aero was buckling as multiplexes swarmed across America like locusts.
“It was a sad place 20 years ago. There were very few patrons,” Rosenfield said. “There were a lot of neighborhood movie theaters that have closed. They became the Gap; they became BookStar.”
In buying the Aero, Rosenfield had a particular mission: “Even if I make no money, I wanted to restore it, but not as a multiplex. I didn’t want to see it go that way,” he said. “I didn’t know enough about the exhibition business. I just knew that it would be fabulous.”
On the programming side, it was Rosenfield who approached the Cinematheque, which by December 1998 had refurbished Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre into its permanent 794-seat home. Established in 1981 as a cultural preserver of cinema, the nonprofit Cinematheque was not looking to branch out westward.
Rosenfield managed to enlist a Hollywood who’s who — Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Gwyneth Paltrow, Favreau — to champion a Cinematheque on the Westside. After all, there was the reality of urban sprawl: “L.A. is too big. I can’t go to the Egyptian even if I wanted to; I’d have to leave at 3 p.m.,” he said.
Following a 15-year lease agreement in 2003, producer and computer pioneer Max Palevsky underwrote the Cinematheque’s share of about three months of renovation work that saw the rundown theater reborn with a high-performance Klipsch sound system, improved projection equipment, a three-times-larger screen, new seats and a new concession counter.
Early on, newspapers either ignored the Aero or glibly wrote off Rosenfield’s interest in it: “Developer Buys Santa Monica Theater!”; “It’s Curtains for the Aero!”
But things certainly didn’t pan out that way.
Behind the projection booth
Gwen Deglise has programmed the Aero’s diverse cinematic content since it reopened under the Cinematheque in January 2005. Freshly arrived in Hollywood from her native Paris, Deglise joined the organization in 1998 and trained under original programmer Dennis Bartok, who set the tone for the Cinematheque’s diverse palette.
Grant Moninger, who started 10 years ago as assistant theater manager of the Aero, joined her as co-programmer in 2010.
Moninger loves genre fare and baseball flicks; Deglise’s strengths lie in world cinema.
“When you program, it’s not about programming for yourself. It’s not about us,” Deglise said.
Over the past decade the Aero’s programming has reacted to a shift in how audiences engage with film, from 2003’s DVD boom to today’s online platforms, by becoming more event-based.
The Aero also installed Digital Cinema Projection and DCP 3D, becoming a rare venue that can project any format. In 2012, Paul Thomas Anderson took advantage of its 70mm capability, previewing “The Master” before an unsuspecting audience there to see “The Shining.”
“No one knew it was coming,” Moninger said. “Everyone was just excited. People were texting and phoning their friends to get down there.”
He cherishes many such moments, such as meeting special effects genius Ray Harryhausen and partaking in comedy bits with Bob Newhart while moderating a “Cold Turkey” screening.
“Norman Lear jumped onstage and joined us,” Moninger said.
“When Mel Brooks comes to the theater, it’s just a joy,” added Deglise, who laughs at how when Brooks sees his films on the Aero’s marquee, he calls to say, “‘I’m coming!’”
Moninger remembers an “Aliens”/ “The Abyss” bill where James Cameron casually shared details from “Avatar” — a year before its release.
“It was the first time he let something out of the bag about ‘Avatar.’ I was kind of stunned,” Moninger said.
And there was the funny, Hollywood-surreal moment when it was just Moninger and Deglise running alongside Eastwood as the actor/director sprinted to his car, like some inversion of his “In the Line of Fire” Secret Service role.
Certain films always deliver at the Aero: “Gone with the Wind,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Citizen Kane.” And there’s probably nowhere else one can see Jacques Tati’s masterpiece “Playtime” on a big screen; or “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” long unavailable on DVD because of rights issues.
Occasionally, programming goes awry. Moninger laughs when recalling a screening of Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To’s “Help.”
“One couple showed up. But they misread it in the paper and thought they had come for the Beatles movie. Had they not shown up, no one would’ve been there,” he said.
But that’s the rare exception, Moninger said, noting how 29 Academy Award-nominated actors have graced the Cinematheque Aero’s stage. And, as with the late Edwards, the Aero inadvertently became a last chance for cinephiles to engage with Ken Russell, Richard Chamberlain, Jane Russell, Richard Fleischer and even Heath Ledger and Philip Seymour Hoffman in person.
The antithesis of the Egyptian’s chaotic Hollywood environs, the beach-adjacent Aero is a draw for filmmakers, Deglise said.
“They feel they’re at home, that they can reach out to the influential people,” she said.
As for audiences, they could easily see “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” at home, but “what we’re offering is the authentic experience of going to a movie theater and sharing that experience,” said Deglise, noting the delight she took in seeing moviegoers ages 8 to 80 (including “The Immigrant” filmmaker James Gray and family) roaring with laughter during the Aero’s annual Marx Brothers marathon on New Year’s Day.
“This hometown theater is keeping alive the early classic movies, featuring iconic actors and actresses, which are an important part of our culture,” Gabriel said. “The Aero brings back memories to older generations while appealing to younger generations who experience what their parents did.”
Rosenfield recently relocated his family to the Bay Area, where he emulated his beloved childhood destination by developing the Marin Country Mart, but still frequents the Aero.
“I see myself as a steward of it,” Rosenfield said.
Moninger, who once found himself dealing with roof repairs moments before moderating a conversation with filmmaker John Sayles, uses a movie analogy to describe the resilient theater that, at 65, found a vibrant second life: “It feels like [the Enterprise] in ‘Star Trek’ or the Millennium Falcon. It goes faster than it’s supposed to. Sometimes you feel like it’s gonna break, but it always works.”
The Aero’s 75th anniversary party and screening of “Fantasia” begins at 7:30 p.m., with tickets $30 in advance or $40 at the door. Saturday’s trivia contest ($10 to enter, $5 to cheer players on) begins at 7:30 p.m. 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. (310) 260-1528; aerotheatre.com